Winter 2006, Vol. 38, No. 4
By Allen Weinstein
"Moment by moment the whole fabric of events dissolves in ruins and melts into the past; and all that survives of the thing done passes into the custody of a shifting, capricious, imperfect, human memory. . . . The facts work loose; they are detached from their roots in time and space and shaped into a story. The story is moulded and remoulded by imagination, by passion and prejudice, by religious preconception or aesthetic instinct, by the delight of the marvelous, by the itch for the moral, by the love of a good story; and the thing becomes a legend. A few irreducible facts will remain; no more, perhaps, than the names of persons and places. . . ."
—F. M. Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907)
The eight-year-old returned to his Bronx apartment after school as he did every day. This day, however, everything was different . . . changed. His parents were at home already and not working at the family restaurant. Other relatives were there. Why? And why was everyone crying, and some even shrieking? Why did no one pay attention to him? Not even seem to notice that he was there? Why?
His mother spoke, finally: "The President is dead! " (What did she say?) "The President's dead! The President's dead! The President's dead! "
Three generations—Bubba (Grandma), Mama and Papa, and yes, by then, the eight-year-old too, sitting at the kitchen table, weeping without end. Why? Because "The President was dead! " Finally, the eight-year-old—as always—began asking questions, but this time questions that no one else in the room bothered to answer: "How did he die? Was he killed in the war? Will there be another President? Who will protect us, who will lead us? " For that is what President Roosevelt—the only President Americans had known for 12 years—had become. Could there be another? No answers; only questions.
By then, the boy felt irritated and unprotected, hurt and ignored. He left the kitchen . . . then the apartment . . . then the block . . . and walked until he reached the nearby elevated subway station, climbed the stairs, placed his coin in the turnstile, and waited for a train. Had he ever done this before? . . . walked away from home in search of answers to questions? Certainly not.
The train came, and the boy rode impatiently, stop after stop, first through the Bronx and then Manhattan until the signs said "42nd STREET/TIMES SQUARE, " and the boy—still searching for answers—left the train. For the next several hours, he shoved his way through the tear-filled crowds in Times Square . . . still ignored . . . still seeking to understand the totality of the grief that surrounded him . . . yet still alone.
Suddenly, he bumped into a woman, who looked much like (but was not) his mother, who gave him a mothers command: "GO HOME, SONNY . . . GO HOME! " . . . which he proceeded to obey.
Back to the train station . . . back to the Bronx . . . back to his block, each building with windows thrown open and wailing people shouting their anguish . . . back home. As the boy reached his apartment, he realized that not a single person had asked for him or about him. Not even his own family, which had failed to even notice that he had been gone for more than five hours.
It was almost dark by then. Yet, no dinner was on the table, and he knew instinctively not to ask for food. Instead, he decided to join the family mourners—for that, he realized finally, was what everyone was doing: mourning. His parents were deep into their private grief, so he poked his Bubba gently on her back. "Bubba, " the boy ventured bravely in his first stab at "grief": "you know that the President is dead? Roosevelt is dead? Roosevelt, the President? "
Suddenly, the spell was broken, and moments later, as if normal time had miraculously resumed, food appeared on the table and life continued.
Allen Weinstein Archivist of the United States, was eight years old in April 1945.